State: Waubonsee Comm. College told to release financial records
The Waubonsee Community College board was wrong to discuss the college's financial condition and the possible sale of property in a closed-door meeting in February, according to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
The binding opinion was issued Friday. It directed the college to turn over minutes and a recording of the closed portion of the meeting to the Daily Herald. It also warned the board to conduct future meetings in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
On Feb. 13, the Daily Herald asked the attorney general's public access counselor to review the actions of the board at its Feb. 4 meeting. It was a special annual meeting devoted to receiving "institutional reports," according to the agenda.
The daylong meeting started in closed session. Looking through a window in a door, a Daily Herald reporter could see PowerPoint-style slides on a screen. They were labeled "Financial uncertainties to the college," "Financial stewardship," "Education and O and M funds five-year forecast," "Forecast summary," "2015 tuition rates projection/consideration FY 2016-2020," "FY 2015 tuition and fees," "Tuition comparison," "Credit hour history," "What are the impacts of limited resources," and "Property tax levies and medical insurance."
The reporter pointed out the Open Meetings Act does not list any exceptions for those topics, but the board refused to let the reporter attend that part of the meeting.
According to the opinion, the state has previously determined a board can't discuss budgetary matters in closed session, even if the result of the talks affects individual employees.
Its review of the recording of the meeting revealed the board "primarily discussed" the college's financial condition and "touched briefly on the importance of having a financial context for upcoming negotiations with employees," according to the opinion.
The opinion also stated that the board discussed efforts to sell or lease property the college owns. The board had cited the purchase of property as a reason for closing the meeting.
Private discussions about the sale or lease of public property are not allowed, other than to talk about price.
When the Daily Herald asked for a copy of the materials presented, through a separate Freedom of Information Act request, the college refused. Its attorney argued disclosing the material discussed in closed session would harm the college.
"If disclosed in advance of final action, hiring recommendations, bid processes, negotiations, land acquisitions, real estate sales, renovation proposals, draft proposals and other tentative and conditional recommendations would be compromised because they could be accessible to competitors and others who could harm the orderly development of the executive deliberate process," wrote attorney Paulette A. Petretti to the attorney general's office.
FOIA exceptions were designed to protect confidential and sensitive materials "that would compromise and frustrate the efficient and expeditious management of local government entities," Petretti wrote.
College officials are reviewing the opinion, said Jim Sibley, executive director of marketing and communications.
"Certainly it is our intent to be compliant," Sibley said. "We will renew our efforts to do so."